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Operating Systems

Is it time to trust automatic software updates?

Applying software patches and enhancements automatically can avoid more problems caused by missing updates and patches.

Some of the folks at Microsoft were perplexed by last week's post on the spacing problem affecting some documents traveling between Office 2010 and Office 2007. I can't say that I blame them. Anyone who set his or her copy of Office to update automatically had the fix for the problem delivered more than two years ago.

The Microsoft Office Sustained Engineering Team addressed the issue in a TechNet blog post that followed last week's report. That post suggests that Office users enable automatic updates of all Microsoft software.

The problem is, some past updates for Windows, antivirus applications, and other software caused more problems than they solved--at least initially. In a post from July 2008 I recommended changing the default Windows update setting from automatic to "Notify me but don't download automatically."

A few months later I looked at the other side of the equation by explaining how to check your Windows update history to make sure vital patches have been applied. I looked for recent reports of update-related problems and found only one: VMware's warning earlier this month about a potential conflict between the company's virtualization software and a Windows 7 security update.

The Royal Pingdom blog provides an overview of past update-related glitches--at least up to May of last year. Not surprisingly, most relate to antivirus updates on Windows XP machines.

Reducing the system maintenance workload
Some PC users enjoy tweaking their machines and being in charge of every aspect of their operation. The rest of us just want to get our work done with as little muss and fuss as necessary. On balance, you'll save more time and trouble by letting Windows and your applications update themselves than by handling all your system updates manually.

There will always be conflicts between different software applications--the products are too complicated to get updates right the first time, every time, for every possible combination of hardware and software people are likely to have installed. The question is whether it's more efficient to manage your updates manually to check beforehand for potential problems, or to let the updates flow and fix on failure.

After years of having some of my PCs set to update manually and others configured for automatic updates, I have officially joined the fix-on-failure camp. For one thing, I use Microsoft Security Essentials on most of my Windows systems, so the likelihood of a conflict between my security app and Windows is diminished.

For another, it has become a royal pain to review all the software patches that get released by Microsoft and other software vendors each month. It takes enough time just restarting after so many system updates, although I do my best to understand the need for the restarts to apply the patches.

But the primary reason I now recommend automatic software updates is the time the average PC user will save in the long run. Even if manually installing software updates takes only 15 minutes a month--a conservative estimate considering all the programs on your machine requiring updates--that quarter hour is a big chunk of your overall system maintenance time.

Good backups make auto-updates safer
More importantly, by having full and incremental backups on hand, you can be ready to roll back your system when an update futzes up the works. Windows automatically creates a restore point before applying updates, but you can adjust your System Restore settings to create and retain restore points to your taste.

The Microsoft Help & How-to site describes how to tweak System Restore in Windows 7, Vista, and Windows XP. Last March I compared (favorably) the free Easeus Todo Backup with the backup utility built into Windows 7. Visit for a list of free and commercial Windows backup apps.

To reset Windows and other Microsoft apps to update automatically, click Start > Windows Update. Choose "Change settings" in the left pane and select "Install updates automatically (recommended)" in the drop-down menu under "Important updates." Note that this is Windows' default update setting, so if you haven't changed it, there's no need to reset it.

Windows Update Control Panel applet Change Settings dialog
Reset Windows and other Microsoft programs to update automatically by restoring the default 'Install updates automatically' setting in the Windows Update Control Panel applet. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

To keep your copies of Office and other Microsoft programs up-to-date, select the option under Microsoft Update. Should you decide afterward that an update is unwelcome, you can remove it via the Programs and Features Control Panel applet (Add or Remove Programs in XP). For tips on troubleshooting Windows Update problems, see the Workers' Edge post on the subject from April 2008.

Organizations that rely on custom apps may want to continue to update Windows manually to ensure that a patch doesn't conflict with a critical home-brewed program. But I now have enough faith in the state of the software-engineering art to trust app vendors to patch with care and caution. In other words, let the pros do their thing.